Up until his 44th year, Gus McLeod, B.A. 1976, had led a pretty normal, workaday life. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he married his CUA classmate, Mary Alice Lockmuller, and went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1978. He worked for the CIA for eight years, did a six-year stint as an engineer with Raytheon, and then purchased a medical supply business, which he had been running for 11 years. Gus and Mary also raised three children, the oldest of whom was 21 and the youngest of whom was 8 when Gus turned 44 in 1998.
That was the year McLeod sold the wholesale side of his medical business and everything changed. He went from being a nine-to-fiver to being a world-class, death-defying adventurer á la Charles Lindbergh or Evel Knievel.
An avid amateur pilot, McLeod had purchased a 1939 open-cockpit biplane four years earlier, a Boeing PT-17 Stearman. When a fellow pilot told him he shouldn’t be flying a plane that’s open to the elements on a cold winter day, the CUA alumnus retorted, “I could take that plane anywhere anytime. I could even take it to the North Pole.”
The North Pole boast wasn’t made with a lot of forethought, but Gus liked the sound and swagger of it and he repeated it a few more times to other acquaintances. This led him to do some research. He found that no one had ever flown an open-cockpit plane to the North Pole, and that most of those who had tried back in the 1920s and ’30s had perished in the attempt.
A longtime admirer of Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the other heroes of the golden age of flying, McLeod became enthralled with following in their footsteps by doing an exploit that no one had ever done before. When he sold the wholesale part of his medical supply business, he had the time and resources to attempt such a thing for the first time in his life.
“There’s a certain part of our psyche that needs to take a chance, that needs to go beyond what we know,” he says. “Each one of us has come to a point in life when we say, ‘Should I do this or should I not?’ More often than not we make our decision based on asking, ‘Well, what’s the less[er] risk?’ Then, more often than not, we regret that we didn’t take the risk.”
It took McLeod two years to retool the biplane’s engine for incredibly cold conditions, make a test flight to the Arctic, and gain 60 pounds of warmth-conserving fat on his 6-foot-1-inch frame. Then in April 2000, at the age of 46, he attempted to become the first man to fly to the North Pole in an open-cockpit plane, coming within a hair’s breadth of crashing or freezing to death on several occasions.
The 13-day, 3,000-mile journey from his hometown of Gaithersburg, Md., to the pole was captured in a half-hour National Geographic special entitled “Arctic Flyer,” which first aired on MSNBC in 2000.
But it was the lonely, excruciating journey — not the achievement of the goal — that changed him forever, McLeod says.
“Adventure is not outside man: It is within.”
The trip to the North Pole — and McLeod’s upcoming adventure of trying to fly around the world (see Page 15) — flow from his earliest childhood proclivities and training.
A man of African, Native American and Scottish ancestry, McLeod was raised for the first six years of his life by his grandmother, Annie Gray of Mount Olive, Miss., a full-blooded Choctaw Indian. It was she who inculcated in Gus a profound affinity for Native American spirituality. And it was she who first noticed and named her grandchild’s special passion for flight. “When she noticed that I had a fascination for things that fly, she told me that my spirit animal must be a hawk,” remembers McLeod.
“She found some hawk eggs for me, and we raised the chicks until they were old enough to fly away, and that’s what I wanted to do, too.”
McLeod did learn to fly a plane at age 15, and while a student at CUA he frequently walked the seven miles between the university and the College Park, Md., airport to take additional flying lessons.
McLeod’s grandmother also shared with him another aspect of Native American culture that would eventually send him flying to the North Pole and then attempting to fly around the world. She described a rite of passage that in some Indian traditions is called a vision quest. Every man, she explained, must perform a grueling test that brings his skills, fortitude and courage to bear.
As McLeod elucidates in his book, Solo to the Top of the World (Smithsonian Books, 2003), “The test is a Native American ritual in which a warrior submits himself to a physical pain beyond his capacity to endure. Once the terrible threshold of pain is crossed, the mind and the soul are released from the warrior’s body to take a demanding spiritual journey, at the completion of which the warrior’s vision is purified. … ‘Through this ordeal,’ [my grandmother] cautioned, ‘a man will discover who he is and will see the true nature of his soul.’ ”
The flight to the North Pole in an open-cockpit plane did, indeed, feel beyond McLeod’s capacity to endure. He suffered wind chills of 196 degrees below zero and frostbite on his hand and face, his Global Positioning System (GPS) and two-way radio froze, and the plane’s engine died while flying over the icy waters of Hudson Bay. Hurtling down toward the bay, he resolved to end his life quickly by crashing at a 90-degree angle, but the engine miraculously stuttered to life 600 feet above the water. He pulled the plane out of its dive and flew on.
While attempting to thaw his radio microphone so that he could communicate with other planes, he put the frozen device into his mouth where it stuck to his flesh. He had to rip it out along with a bloody patch of his lip.
In the midst of all this, McLeod says he was blessed with a vision or apparition, as the Indian warriors of old aspired to during their vision quests. Nearly dead with cold and fatigue as he flew the last leg to the North Pole on April 17, 2000, he felt he was standing in a room without walls and a group of men were approaching. Among them he recognized George Mallory, the British mountain climber who died on Everest in 1924; Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, who in 1909 were the first men to reach the North Pole; and the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.
“They told me I belonged with them and they had come to welcome me to their ranks,” McLeod says.
Later that evening he came to himself and — with the Arctic sun still well above the horizon — he flew three tight circles over the North Pole.
“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves — in finding themselves.”
From his youth McLeod says he has been a loner and someone who thought he didn’t really need people.
He also struggled with embracing his multi-ethnic heritage in a nation that he says tends to recognize only the African part of an African-American man — and not, in McLeod’s case, his Scottish and Native American heritage. On his perilous flight to the North Pole, however, McLeod received revelations about these matters. He now sees those revelations as the real reason for the adventure.
Flying the noisy plane for hours on end, “for the first time in my life I got lonely — so lonely it hurt,” he says. Listening to other pilots’ radio conversations during those hours, he was overjoyed to realize for the first time that there is a part of himself that needs contact with others. “I saw that without connections with others, we’re not human anymore,” he says.
A week later, on one of the final legs of the journey, his personal demons began to surface in the noisy solitude, asking “What are you doing out here all alone? Are you suicidal or just living the dream, old boy?” These were questions he had heard before. This time they focused on his identity and he couldn’t evade them.
“Who am I?” he shouted into the void. He couldn’t define himself as African-American, he thought, as that would feel like a denial of his Scottish grandfather and Choctaw grandmother.
“Somehow I knew this time I had to think it through,” McLeod remembers. “I am not Choctaw, not Scottish, not African. I am sick of being called some kind of American. I am an American, pure and simple. And I refuse to continue playing a game in which others define me, a game where everything that is won also gets lost in guilt.
“As I look back on it, I understand that in those terrible hours of truth I performed my test.” Ever since that flight, McLeod says, “I’m a lot more at ease with myself.”
“The devotion of the greatest is to encounter risk and danger, and play dice for death.”
Of course, there is also the troubling, addictive side of adventure. There is the selfish side of derring-do, especially when adventures require leaving one’s wife and children behind and going off to risk one’s life. For his part, McLeod freely admits the selfishness of his North Pole trip.
But it’s also true, according to McLeod’s wife, Mary, that seeking adventure is part of who Gus is. “I think he’s always been the kind of person who likes to push himself and this is just another way of pushing himself,” she says.
Also, danger is relative. “It all depends on what skill level you have, as to what comfort level you feel,” says Mary. “He’s very skillful. He would be the type of guy on ‘Survivor’ that everyone would keep on the show, because he’d be out catching the fish by hand.”
Asked if she too is a risk-taker, Mary laughs and says, “Having three children was pretty adventurous. It involved walking into the unknown. They say you’ll have them under your care until they’re 18, but it’s not true; they keep coming back for various reasons.”
Gus and Mary met and courted at Catholic University, and Gus says his undergraduate experience had a positive influence on his life. In fact, one thing he learned in a CUA classroom saved his life. Flying over the featureless Arctic ice with his GPS inoperative due to the cold, he had no way to know whether he was continuing to head toward the North Pole. Then he recalled something a professor had said in a CUA physics class: that it is possible to outstretch your fist and predict when the sun will be going down, since the sun travels one fist’s length (or 15 degrees of its arc) in approximately one hour. McLeod says he adapted that principle to keep himself traveling north — letting the sun move one additional fist width from the wing tip every 30 minutes — and that led him to the pole, where a National Geographic plane waited to film his victory laps.
Gus’ Next Adventure: A First-Ever Around-the-World Flight
Having handed off the retail side of his medical equipment store to his wife, Gus McLeod is now planning another death-defying exploit: to fly a single-engine plane over both the North Pole and South Pole while circling the globe over a period of several weeks. It’s a feat that has never been accomplished, despite continuing attempts by European and American flyers. One of those who has tried and failed is McLeod himself, whose 2004 attempt resulted in his making two forced landings on the ice of Antarctica and another on a farmer’s field in Argentina.
“Crazier than a bedbug,” is how Jerome Hodge described McLeod to a Smithsonian magazine reporter. Hodge, president of the Baltimore-based AvDyne AeroServices, donated the labor to tune Gus’ plane for the unsuccessful attempt to circumnavigate the globe. “Some places in the world that he’ll be flying over are so remote, if he goes down, he’s dead. They won’t find him for weeks.”
The biggest obstacle to circling the Earth via the two poles is finding a single-engine plane powerful enough to lift itself and 350 gallons of gasoline above the ice-laden Antarctic and Arctic cloud cover. (The American Elgen Long circumnavigated the globe via the two poles in 1971, but he did it in a twin-engine plane, which has more power to climb over the clouds — and has the advantage of a second engine if one engine dies.)
Now 53 years old, McLeod plans to make the attempt again in January 2008, once he has finished his current work of helping a South Korean company design a single-engine plane with the needed lifting power.
Becoming a Sailing Legend
Every man must take risks in order to be true to himself and the things he is called to do, as must every woman. Few people are as good an example of this as CUA alumnus Don Street, who earned his B.A. in history in 1955 and felt the call of the sea.
The co-founder in 1949 of Catholic University’s short-lived but surprisingly successful sailing team, Street had learned to sail at age 12. He took to the sport like a duck to water, he says. With classmates Ed Rogers and Norm “Boomer” Curran, Street led CUA’s sailing team to place first or second in several intercollegiate regattas in 1954 and 1955. Then, immediately after graduating, he worked in Europe as a crewman on yachts for several months. His family on Long Island, however, pressed him to get a job in Manhattan and save his sailing for weekends and vacations.
As a child, Street had wanted to become a yacht designer but his family opposed the idea. “From an early age I was beaten over the head with the message that ‘You go down to the canyons of New York and make your money and spend it on yachts, but you can’t possibly make a living on yachts,’ ” recalls Street.
His loved ones were still saying the same thing when he graduated from CUA. “Everyone — my uncles, my mother, my father, and the people I sailed with at the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club — were after me to take a ‘real’ job. I asked ‘Why?’ But their pressure mounted and I ended up in the job market. I landed a position at Frank B. Hall and Partners, an insurance broker in Manhattan.”
The day before he was to start work, however, he felt that he couldn’t go through with it and still be true to himself. That day he was sailing off Larchmont, N.Y., and it began snowing. Because he had just shaved off his red beard as a condition for getting the new job, his face felt cold. A buddy remarked, “My God, Don, you are the only person in New York who has ChapStick on your entire face.”
“I thought about it,” remembers Street, “and decided I didn’t like cold weather. You can’t change the weather, but you can go to where the weather’s good.”
He had heard that the weather and the sailing were good in the Caribbean, so instead of reporting to work the next day, he flew down to the Virgin Islands. Four months later, he used the proceeds from the sale of his automobile to help purchase the 45-foot engineless yacht Iolaire (which means “white-tailed sea eagle” in Scottish Gaelic) with a $3,000 down payment. He went on to raise four children on that yacht — one born to his first wife, Marilyn, who died in 1964, and three born to his second wife, Patricia Boucher. He also went on to write nine guidebooks to sailing the Caribbean and the Atlantic, produce improved nautical charts for the eastern Caribbean, and attain the status of a living legend among yachtsmen.
“Any yachtsman who has saltwater in his veins knows who Street is, and, once met, he’s never forgotten,” says Kenneth Beken, managing director of a leading sailing-related photography company, Beken of Cowes, based on England’s Isle of Wight. “Those that sail regard him as a sort of Ancient Mariner and nautical hero who has sailed his engineless yacht all over the Eastern Seaboard and recharted the ever-changing coral reefs and sandbars of the Caribbean that catch the unwary yachtsmen who rely blindly on the belief that their GPS and out-of-date charts never lie.”
As The New York Times reported in a 2002 article about Street, he is a famous man in the Caribbean: “Sipping a beer with the sailor and yachting writer Don Street in a busy open-air bar on the island of Tortola may be like sharing a table with the basketball star Michael Jordan in a Chicago tavern. It is clear from the double takes of countless passers-by, and the occasional stranger who wanders up confessing he is a longtime fan, that Street is well known and has many admirers.”
His family had insisted that one couldn’t make money yachting, but Street — now 76 years old — has proved them wrong. He’s done it with a patchwork of jobs. Besides writing sailing books and surveying the ocean depths to correct nautical charts, he has sold yacht insurance and chartered his yacht and his services as skipper to wealthy patrons.
“The vast majority of the time, I’ve liked what I’m doing,” he says in the high, gravelly voice which has earned him the nickname “Squeaky.” “So many people are working away but they hate what they’re doing. They’re doing it strictly for making the money.”
Just how adventurous is this CUA alumnus? Well, the first employment he sought in the Virgin Islands was as a surveyor, though he had zero training in that field. He simply heard there was a shortage of surveyors in the Caribbean.
“On Friday I borrowed a book on basic surveying,” Street remembers. “By Wednesday morning I convinced them that I was a surveyor. In the land of the blind the one-eyed are king.”
After he began chartering Iolaire along with his services as skipper, one of his first customers was Burt Shevelove, who had just written the hit Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. On the island of St. John, Shevelove stopped to have dinner with his friend, the novelist John Steinbeck, and invited Street to come along.
The subject of writing and talent came up over dinner and Steinbeck said, “Forget all the B.S. about talent. Becoming a good writer depends on your ability to put your rear on a hard wooden chair and look at the typewriter for six hours a day and pound something out. Eventually an editor will accept your work.”
Later that evening he turned to Street and said, “Kid, you tell a good story. Why don’t you try writing?”
Street took his advice and a few years later published Cruising Guide to the Lesser Antilles, the first of his many guidebooks to
sailing the Caribbean.
Before Street there were no such guidebooks, and sailors were wrecking so many yachts on underwater reefs that insurance companies stopped insuring the companies that rented yachts. Street’s books — which tell sailors where every safe anchorage is and where there are underwater rocks and shoals to avoid — have sold a quarter of a million copies, according to the CUA alumnus.
When Street first arrived in the eastern Caribbean in 1956, the nautical charts of the area dated back to the mid-1800s and were very inaccurate and difficult to read. The reason the 60 charts of the area are now accurate and easier to use is that Street corrected them by meticulously measuring ocean depths for a British chart publisher.
Street has sailed across the Atlantic between North America and Europe 12 times.Today he is still racing yachts and writing books. His daughter, Dory, is herself an accomplished sailing navigator who was a member of the crew that won the America’s Cup back from the Australians in 1987. Two of his three sons are professionally involved with yachts, one as a skipper and the other as a boat designer.
Now in the process of selling Iolaire, Street says he plans to continue sailing his smaller racing boat, the 28-foot Gypsy, “as long as I’m able to get in and out of it.”
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